Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Westfieldians in Paris and Beyond!

Mes amies et la Tour Eiffel!
After a brief blogging hiatus, I can now report that I successfully made it back to the US (with all my bags, too!).  It's definitely bizarre trying to settle back in to life in a different country, culture and language - but I'm surviving! More on that at a later time...but for now, a recap of my final week in France!

One last night enjoying the city glow from my old bedroom in Paris
I wrapped up my teaching experience on a Friday, spent Saturday packing my life away back into 3 suitcases, and then headed up to Paris for one last hurrah on Sunday morning.  After meeting up with Kasey for a delicious late lunch at Café Jade in the ritzy Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, I jetted off to the other side of town back to my old home in the 20e arrondissement.  My host parents Béatrix and Quentin had invited me over for dinner and drinks "as a family" one last time before I returned to the US.  I always love going over there to spend time with them - and each time it feels as if I never left them 2 whole years ago, for we can just pick right up where we left off the last time we saw each other.  I was delighted to have had the opportunity to see them a handful of times during the past 8 months and truly value their support and friendship - they were always there to offer me a kind word, delicious meal, and comfy place to sleep whenever I happened to be passing through.  Knowing that was going to be the last time I'd see them for quite some time made me rather nostalgic and led to a teary-eyed à la prochaine ("see you next time").

Lisa & Sam by Notre-Dame
I couldn't stay sad for too long, though, because the next day Lisa and Sam, my two friends from back in Westfield, were coming to visit!  Like a kid anxiously waiting to open presents on Christmas morning, I watched the clock tick by until it was time to go pick them up downtown.  After having been away from my friends and loved ones for so long, it was so nice to see their smiling faces as they stepped, luggage-laden, off the train from the airport.  We packed into the metro and headed over to the studio apartment we had rented in the 13th arrondissement to drop off all our bags before hitting the town.

Spring is in full-bloom in Paris
After such a long flight, Sam and Lisa wanted to stretch their legs a bit and take advantage of the sunny weather, so we made our way back into the heart of the city for a stroll around Notre-Dame.  I enjoyed watching their looks of awe as they took in the beauty of the church and its surrounding gardens and thought back to my own amazement during my first trip to Paris!

Notre-Dame and her gardens
What better way to end a stroll than with Happy Hour(s)?  Since it was that time of day, we took the metro over to Place de la Bastille where we enjoyed some conversation and a couple half-price cocktails in the sunshine.  We decided to sit outside so we could people-watch, and I had to laugh when Lisa and Sam couldn't get over all the cigarette smoke!  Yes, people smoke in the US, but the amount of people smoking in France seems ten-fold.  I guess I've gotten used to being in a cloud of smoke no matter where I go, but now that I'm back home I can definitely say I've missed the clean air!

Happy Hour at Indiana Bar
We grabbed a prix-fixe dinner on Rue Mouffetard, a cool restaurant and bar-lined street near my old university, so they could try out a few French specialties without breaking the bank (I had escargots, confit de canard and crème brûlée - quelle surprise!), and then it was time to call it a night - we needed to rest up for the rest of the week!

We wanted to make it a pretty stress-free week, so we made a list of 2 or 3 things we wanted to do each day and then worked in other stuff as we saw fit.  First up for day two: the catacombs!  I had already been a handful to times (most recently when my parents came to visit in March), but it's always a cool place to visit.  Despite the nearly 2 hour wait to enter, Lisa and Sam were really impressed by it all and thought it was definitely worth the wait!

Falafel from L'As du Falafel in the Marais
By the time we were done wandering through the catacombs our stomachs were grumbling, so I decided to introduce my visitors to the delicious gastronomic creation that is falafel.  To find the best falafel in Paris, you have to head off the beaten path and venture into Le Marais, the city's Jewish neighborhood.  For 6 Euro, you get quite the overstuffed pita full of falafel (deep-fried mashed chick pea balls), roasted eggplant, tomatoes, pickled cabbage, hummus, yogurt sauce and a little bit of spicy sauce thrown on top. Miam miam! For dessert, we went back out onto the main drag, Rue de Rivoli, and snagged some macarons from a chocolate shop.  Available in basically any mouth-watering flavor, macarons are delicate French meringue-like sandwich cookies with an almond flour base. We picked up a variety including bergamot, salted butter caramel, pistachio, coconut, coffee, and passion fruit with basil - a delicious way to round out our French street-food lunch!

Our macarons
Ready for more sight-seeing, we continued down Rue de Rivoli to the Louvre and the Jardins des Tuileries to snap some photos - the museum is closed every Tuesday, but was on our radar for later in the week.  Meandering through the gardens we wound up at Place de la Concorde and after a pause for some pictures we headed up the infamous Champs-Élysées.  There was much ooh-ing and aah-ing over all the designer shops, but alas, we were too poor to enter!  At least we were able to get a few good pictures by L'Arc de Triomphe before the rain began.

At the Jardin des Tuileries
Selfie at the Arc de Triomphe
We had to pass by Place du Trocadéro on our way back to our apartment, so we jumped off the metro at this stop to get a good look at the Eiffel Tower, with plans to revisit it later on during the week.

Lisa and her umbrella, artfully posing
By this point, the rain was really coming down, so we decided we'd take a wine and cheese break back at our place before venturing out again for the rest of the night.

I had lots of time to perfect my tire-bouchon (corkscrew) skills!
We rounded out our evening with a soggy voyage back to the center of the city and settled on a restaurant in the touristy St-Michel neighborhood. While I've gotten used to it by now, Sam and Lisa couldn't get over how late everyone eats here in France - it was nearly 9:30pm by the time we ordered our food!  Feet wet and bellies full of French cuisine, we trudged back to our apartment for the night.

Outside Le Château de Versailles
Taking advantage of the warm, non-rainy weather the next morning, we hopped an early train to Versailles, about 30 minutes outside the city, to visit the palace and extensive gardens.  The current palace was built during the 17th century under Louis XIV and stands as a testament to his reign as an absolute monarch - no expense was spared!  I'd definitely say that anyone visiting Paris with half a day to spare should absolutely check out this amazing former royal residence - 6 visits later, its opulent grandeur still gets me every time!  

The Palace of Versailles, as seen from the garden side of the property
After waiting a while to buy Sam and Lisa's tickets (anyone holding a long-term visa can enter for free - you don't even have to wait in line for a ticket, just head straight to security, flash your passport, et voilà!), we decided it would be wisest to stroll through the gardens while it was still sunny and then see the interior of the palace later in the day once it clouded up.     

Le Bassin d'Apollon, Apollo's Basin
GoogleMaps has used their impressive StreetView technology to photograph the palace and its environs so you can take a virtual tour online! Click here to get an aerial view of the property (the symmetry of its jardins à la française is amazing!). Furthermore, you can click on the little orange man in the bottom right corner of the screen and drag him to any of the blue paths that light up on the map. From there, you can click your way through the grounds and "walk" around to see the beautiful landscape that surrounds the palace. I suggest finding the red dot near the center of the screen and placing him just to the left of the two large basins next to the palace - from here, you can pan around to see the palace and the breath-taking view out onto the gardens beyond the stairs. And if you put your mouse over the search bar in the top left of the screen where it says "Château de Versailles," a little box will drop down with 'See Inside' as one of the options - click this and you'll be transported inside the Hall of Mirrors, from which you can "walk" in all directions to take a private, tourist-free visit of the building. Man, do I love technology!

Lisa and Sam outside the Palace
Here are a few pictures from our stroll through the gardens!

Lisa and I enjoying the flowers!

After grabbing some paninis in the gardens (an authentic aristocratic 17th century French lunch, no doubt!) and taking full advantage of the sunshine, we made our way back up to the front of the palace and through the long security line to head inside.  It was school vacation week in France, so needless to say there were ridiculous crowds of people - but it was still worth a visit!  

Sam and Lisa outside the front of the palace
Here's a glimpse at what we saw inside...

Nearly every surface inside the palace is coated with gold leaf
The Hall of Mirrors
Marie-Antoinette's bedchamber
After our visit of Versailles, we rode back to Paris, grabbed some crêpes for a mid-afternoon snack, and then entered the Louvre for some more sight-seeing.  I could spend (and have spent!) days inside, wandering through every single gallery, but we were on a bit of a time crunch so we ended up just hitting the major highlights.  Into the Denon wing we went, with the incredibly underwhelming Mona Lisa on our radar.  After saying bonjour to her, we wandered down the Grande Galerie to see more famous works by Da Vinci, Raphael, and other art history legends, passed through the Italian sculpture gallery to see Michelangelo's Slaves, and ended with a swing through the Egyptian wing - the Louvre has the world's second largest collection of Egyptian artifacts, after the museum in Cairo.  

Michelangelo's Slaves
Walk like and Egyptian
La Grande Galerie
Although we had only scratched the surface of the museum's vast collection (if you spent 30 seconds in front of each work and never took a break, you'd be inside for over 9 months!), our feet were aching after our day of walking and we decided it would be a great time to take advantage of yet another Happy Hour!  

Mojito time!
Back when I lived in Paris, my friends and I would frequent Le Comptoir des Archives near Le Centre Pompidou for their 5.50 Euro Happy Hour mojitos, so that's where we ended up! I'm glad to report that they were still just as tasty as they were over 2 years ago - but we tried a couple anyways, just to be sure!  For dinner later that evening we ended up at one of my favorite restaurants in the city, Les P'tites Indécises near Place de la République.  They have seasonal menus that change depending on what fresh ingredients they pick up, so it's always exciting to go see what happens to be on the menu (although I really like going here for brunch, too!).  

Foie gras with red onion confit and fig bread, delicious!
Sam and Lisa were all for trying local cuisine, so we ordered up an appetizer that is very typically French - foie gras.  Meaning 'fatty liver,' foie gras is just that - a chunk of liver from a goose or duck that has been specially fed to become extra fat.  Our foie gras came with a sweet red onion confit and delicious home-baked fig bread to spread it on, mmm! While the idea of eating fatty liver may seem revolting, the dish itself is quite tasty and makes for a good appetizer before your meal.  My dinner of duck with roasted asparagus, zucchini and green beans was equally delicious - this little restaurant hit a home run once again.

La Tour Eiffel
Thursday happened to be on May 1, which is called "La Fête du Travail" in France - it's their Labor Day. Consequently, most major monuments and museums run by the French government were closed, but that didn't stop us from having a fun day in the city.  We started our day with a trip to the Eiffel Tower, with every intention of going up to the top.  I had tried to reserve tickets online so we wouldn't have to wait in line, but since it was school vacation week all those were sold out... After snapping a bunch of pictures on the Champs de Mars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, we headed underneath it to see what sort of wait we'd be in for.

If you take a picture of yourself on vacation with a copy of The Westfield News you can end up in the local paper - we're famous now!
I have never seen such long lines there before! We snaked our way through the throngs of people to find the end of the lines and then had to make a decision: did we want to spend 4 hours waiting in line to go up the tower, or would we rather spend that time seeing other attractions in the city? The top floor with the best views was closed anyways due to overcrowding, so we decided that our time would be better spent elsewhere in the city.

Moules-frites again!
Since we were in the market to climb a monument to see the city from above, I suggested going to Sacré-Cœur Basilica and climbing its dome.  This is one of my favorite things to do in the city - way less crowded than the Eiffel Tower and with equally impressive views! After crossing the city in a torrential downpour, we decided we'd stop for lunch before climbing the 300+ steps up to the top of the church.  We snagged seats under a heated, covered awning on the sidewalk of a café in Montmartre while we ate and waited for the rain to lighten up.  It was a little damp with the rain and wind, so it was a perfect opportunity to introduce Sam and Lisa to the glory of vin chaud (hot mulled wine)...yum!

View from the top of  Sacré-Cœur
The rain let up enough for us to do a bit of souvenir shopping on our walk over to the church, and just as I had suspected, we only had to wait in line for 2 minutes before we could start climbing to the top of the church - take that, Eiffel Tower!  Up the narrow, spiral staircases we went (at some points barely wide enough for your shoulders to pass, not for the claustrophobic!), eager to view the city from a perch high above.  Not only do you get to admire the city, you can inspect gargoyles and fancy bell towers up close.  I could spend all day up here - you can walk around the entire dome to take in all 360 degrees of the city skyline...amazing every time.

Continuing our tour of the Montmartre district, we meandered down the cobblestone streets to the famous artists' square at Place du Tertre.  A feast for the eyes, artists perched on stools sit with their oil paints and palette knives, skillfully creating masterpieces right before your eyes.  You can find all kinds of works here: pastels, watercolors, oil paintings, charcoal sketches and mixed media collages.  While the prices aren't cheap, it's a wonderful place to buy up some unique decorations for your home, and you can feel good knowing your money is going directly to the skilled artisans who have created your one-of-a-kind souvenir.  We're re-doing one of our bathrooms at home, so I picked out a watercolor to go on the wall, as well as a work in pencil and acrylic for my bedroom back home - I'll think of Paris every time I see them!

My acrylic and pencil work showing Notre-Dame and its surrounding gardens in a flourish of color - matches perfectly with the honeydew green walls in my room! A steal at only 20€!
We bought some groceries and returned to our apartment for an evening in out of the rain - soaked to the core, we needed to dry out a bit!  I had invited my friend Kasey over for dinner, drinks and conversation with some fellow Americans, so we had a great evening relaxing and swapping stories. I whipped up some coq au vin, which is chicken, carrots, onions and mushrooms simmered in a red wine sauce and we had crème brûlée (store bought, caramelized at home!) - delicious and a fraction of the price we'd pay for all that in a restaurant. 

Sam, Lisa and Kasey during Happy Hour at our apartment!
Kasey and I had to say our final goodbyes, as she was headed off to Prague with some friends and we'd be back in the States by the time she returned.  I'm grateful to have had such an amazing friend, confidante and fellow fun-loving American in the city - we had lots of fun adventures together and she never failed to make room for me in her tiny apartment whenever I was passing through! Merci beaucoup, mon amie! 

Kasey et moi
We had to be up and out of our apartment early Friday morning, for it was time to go to the glorious place that is Forbach!  I had a few things to wrap up before returning to the US and figured that Lisa and Sam would get to see another region of France and even hop over into Germany by staying with me for a couple nights.  

After a 2 hour train ride, we arrived back "home" and after dropping off our bags at my apartment we took another train across the border into Saarbrücken.  It was gorgeous out and made for a lovely afternoon putzing through the shops in the city.  Sam and Lisa thought it was cool that we could so easily jump across the border into a country with a totally different language and culture just to do some light shopping.  As is customary every time I'm in Saarbrücken, I had to get a cheesy pretzel! While Meike usually would order mine for me, I got to use my extremely limited German and ordered it myself: "Eine Brezel mit Käse bitte ... Danke, Tschüss!" (One pretzel with cheese please...thanks, bye!). My friends laughed and asked when I had learned German - but when you're hungry and want a pretzel (which is pretty much every time I go there to shop), desperate times call for desperate measures.  They followed suit and got cheesy pretzels too, and we munched on them while we wrapped up our German shopping extravaganza.  

A delicious, cheesy German pretzel
We killed a little time (and had a little wine!) back at my apartment and then dined at Au Vieux Strasbourg, the great little Alsatian restaurant in Forbach.  I had told my friends about the tasty regional dish called flammekueche and they were eager to try them; we each ordered one of the cheese and bacon covered thin-crust pizzas.  Lisa got Muenster cheese on hers and wondered why it smelled like feet when it was delivered to our table - a sure sign of authentic Muenster cheese, not the orange-dyed variety found at grocery store deli counters back home!  

Orange: my final battle with French customer service
Saturday morning, I had to take care of some business, namely the horrid task of trying to cancel my home phone/cable/internet services.  Knowing all to well by this point that any bureaucratic endeavor in France will never be easy or go as planned, I braced myself as I headed downtown.  

I had made a special trip to the Orange boutique (like a Verizon store) the week before to find out exactly what I needed to do to rid myself of my technological services, and after waiting in line for 20 minutes a super helpful gentleman told me it'd be easier for him if I just called a phone number and had someone there explain the process to me...even though I was standing in front of a living, breathing human being who works for the company whose phone number I'd be calling. Long story short, he eventually said I just had to bring my cable and internet boxes back to the store to get my 50 Euro deposit back and cancel my contracts. 

So, a week later, when I did just that, I got to the store only to be told that I can't just walk in and cancel my services, but needed to write a letter stating that I wished to terminate my contract and then mail it through certified, return-receipt mail...which was super convenient because it was my last day in Forbach and the post office was already closed for the week.  The ever-compassionate store worker told me that was my problem, not his, and that I should have come in earlier to clarify exactly what I needed to do in order to properly cancel my services - at which point I started bashing my head against a wall. After writing said letter back here in the US and spending $20 to mail it all the way back to France, I'm still waiting to see how/when I'll get my deposit back (but have basically accepted the fact that it's long gone). French customer service never fails to aggravate me!

Sam and I with our cheese fondue
Blood-boiling, I returned to my apartment to pick up Sam and Lisa, for we were headed up to Metz for the afternoon.  Back on the train we went, and 45 minutes later we arrived in the city.  It was lunchtime and en route to the city's amazing cathedral we stumbled upon a fondue restaurant called Heureux Comme Alexandre - since my friends hadn't yet tried this our during our trip, we decided to go for it.  The menu is simple: pick either cheese or meat fondue, pair it with an appropriate beer or wine and bingo, you've got yourself a delicious lunch.  Sam and I opted for the cheese fondue while Lisa went for the beef one.  You get a big platter of salad, unlimited pan fried potatoes and a multitude of sauces to try. While Sam and I twirled chunks of baguette in our molten pot of cheese, Lisa cooked her raw pieces of beef in a bubbling cauldron of oil flavored with bouillon.  I got to chatting up the owner/bartender/server, and he ended our meal by bringing 4 shots of mirabelle plum liqueur over to our table (3 for us, one for himself!).  I had told him that I lived in Forbach and was about to move back to the US, and he said the shots would give us a good lasting memory of life in Lorraine (better than my stay in crappy old Forbach)!

Lisa and her beef fondue pot
We rolled ourselves out of the restaurant and down the street to Metz's cathedral, one of my favorite Gothic churches in France.  After thoroughly photographing the inside and the outside, we continued to stroll through the town, taking pictures of the quaint little churches and buildings by the river and then doing a bit of shopping before returning to Forbach for the evening.

The cathedral's intricate Gothic facade
One last view down the nave

Fancy cafés near the Opera

In the cute little gardens behind the Temple Neuf

I couldn't believe the moment was finally here: my last night in Forbach! We created a dinner from stuff that I had left in my pantry and then finished packing up our suitcases, since we were returning to Paris the next morning to spend one last day in the capital before flying home on Monday.  It was fun lugging our five 50 lb suitcases (plus numerous carry-on bags) down the 5 flights of stairs to leave my apartment building, and sort of surreal to be leaving the gates of the campus where I lived and worked for the past 8 months one final time.  Thankfully, one of my colleagues had offered to drive us to the train station so we wouldn't have to wrangle our bags through town alone - by this point, one of my 3 suitcases had a completely busted wheel.  We frantically boarded our train with all of our bags and settled in for a ride back to Paris as we watched Forbach and its mining infrastructure-dotted skyline slip away in the distance...

My cork collection from Forbach sadly wouldn't fit in my suitcase :(
Some nice guys took pity on us as we arrived at Gare de l'Est back in Paris and helped us unload all of our bags from the train - we just had to drag our stuff down the street a ways to our hotel for the night.  Hot and exhausted by the time we finally arrived, we grabbed some paninis for lunch and rode the metro back to the city center for our afternoon entertainment.  I had purchased some deals from Groupon France for a guided boat cruise through the city on the Seine a while back, and we couldn't have picked a nicer day to use them! I had been on the Bateaux-Mouches a few times before, but this time we were using the Vedettes du Pont Neuf and had a live guide instead of a pre-recorded tour.  We enjoyed our picnic lunch on the top deck of the boat, got some sun and snapped a bunch of great pictures, all while learning some new facts about the city.  

Getting some sun on our cruise
Yet another view of the Eiffel Tower!
Gilded statues on Pont Alexandre III
Musée D'Orsay
Notre Dame, seen from all angles!

In need of some cool refreshments after our boat ride, we headed down to the Jardin du Luxembourg to grab some ice cream and do a bit of people watching.  After attempting to buy ice cream from one fancy ice cream stand, only to be told that they were tired because the ice cream was too hard to scoop (imagine that, frozen ice cream! only in France...), we bought some right outside the park's gates instead.  They have every flavor imaginable: honey, lavender, Armagnac, lily of the valley...and more common varieties like chocolate and vanilla.  I settled on two scoops of dark chocolate and salted butter caramel, and we set off in search of a spot to sit in the park.  Everyone else in the city must have had the same idea, for there was not a free seat to be had! We plopped ourselves down on the edge of one of the big fountains and watched as kids raced sailboats up and down the basin.

The French Senate building in the Jardin du Luxembourg
Sailboat races in the fountain
Palm trees in the garden, a sure sign that summer is here!
We strolled across the park and took a detour to check out St-Sulpice church (the one from the Da Vinci Code), since it was right next to where we were, and then continued on to find a suitable place for our last Happy Hour in Paris...

The large fountain at Place St-Sulpice
We wound up at Café Mondrian (named after the Dutch De Stijl painter) in St-Germain-des-Prés and did some more people-watching while we sipped our cocktails and reflected on our amazing week together.

Half-price fancy drinks with glow stick stirrers in a ritzy neighborhood, can't beat it!
Following Happy Hour (which, thankfully, in Paris lasts much longer than one single solitary hour!) we returned to Café Jade (near the Odéon metro stop) and savored a final French dinner. We split an order of escargots and then I dove into a delectable platter of confit de canard one last time...

Nos escargots
Lisa and her Croque Madame 
Exhausted from our day of moving out of Forbach and sight-seeing in Paris, we turned in early as we had a plane to catch the next day.  I was so eager to finally return home, but at the same time quite melancholy about leaving France and more specifically Paris, a city which will forever hold a piece of my heart.

Our trek from our hotel to the airport the next morning was quite humorous, as my already damaged suitcase suffered a second broken wheel - I was essentially dragging this 50 pound behemoth down the sidewalk, utterly at the mercy of the duct tape holding the bottom of it together.  We made it onto the RER and finally arrived at the airport, grateful to snag some luggage carts the second we got off the train! I am so grateful that Lisa and Sam were there with me and able to help me wrangle all of my bags, as there is absolutely no way I would have been able to do it alone! 

We flew 3 hours from Paris to Iceland, had a 1:25 layover, and then continued on for the last 5 hours from Iceland to Boston.  Miraculously, all of our bags made it to Boston as well (and my damaged bag was somehow still held together by the duct tape!), and we eagerly began our 2 hour drive back to Westfield.  Although I didn't get to my house until almost 11pm, I was so happy to finally be home that it didn't even matter!

Molly, my favorite furry friend
There's really nothing like sleeping in your own bed again! My kitty Molly and I snuggled in for some much needed sleep, while the daunting task of unpacking all 150+ lbs of luggage could wait til the next day!

Luggage explosion!
I had an amazing week with Sam and Lisa - I wish it could have been longer!  We got to see and do so much together, and I was really happy to be able to show them around my stomping grounds - a repeat adventure someday is a must!


  1. Love it! I can't wait for our next adventure!

  2. Me neither :) Hopefully wherever we go next has equally abundant Happy Hours haha!